THE STATE OF AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION: DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN
By Andrés Rodríguez Jr., father of BAT and DREAM admin Aixa Rodriguez
How the current apostates of education reform distort the meaning of “public” in public education is breathtaking. More astonishing is the perversion of time-tested and proven elements of good public education with its concomitant, predictable and disturbing consequences: institutional segregation of students, under-resourced schools, overcrowded classrooms, no access to the arts, music or physical education, lack of diversity in the teaching corps, mediocre school leadership, bland and non-stimulating curricula emphasizing test-taking instead of critical thinking and analysis.
This is the legacy that education “reform” in New York City and other urban centers of America are leaving in their wake. Institutions of higher learning want a well-rounded and diverse student body. Much of what currently passes for “reform” in New York City is depriving students of experiences highly valued by college recruiters. The students that stand to lose the most are poor, of color, and immigrants.
Above: Protest held by College Bound students and fellow Franklin students demanding the same small classes and programs for all students. Below: Students from NYCLetEmPlay at the International Community High School protesting against racial inequities in sports funding.
The maxim “there is always room for improvement” encapsulates the essence of “continuous quality improvement”, a management philosophy applicable to virtually all human endeavors, including education. Who would question the wisdom of that philosophy? Many “reformers” self-identify as polemicists only interested in improving public education. But some of the loudest and well-connected reformers around now would be better described as propagandists with hidden agendas. One must wonder what exactly these “reformers” are peddling. The polemics about what constitutes an effective and productive system of public education were settled decades ago. The accomplishments of the high school I attended in East Harlem, El Barrio, in the late 1960’s exemplify that.
Benjamin Franklin High School in East Harlem (years ago renamed the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics) was never on my radar. I didn’t choose to attend the school. I was focused on Bronx Science, Brooklyn Technical or Stuyvesant high schools. But I was never alerted to the entrance examination dates for these specialized schools. Forced to choose between Morris High School in the Bronx and Benjamin Franklin High School in Manhattan, schools with less than stellar reputations at the time, I chose Franklin. It was not apparent to me and many of my classmates that an extraordinary set of circumstances would have life-changing implications for all of us.
My introduction to freshman year of high school was more about rude awakening than high expectations. The most vivid recollection I have of its start is an overcrowded English classroom so lacking in resources that each available copy of George Eliot’s novel, Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe, had to be shared by two students! It was a dispiriting revelation. I had always been an enthusiastic student earning high marks for class participation. Despite the teacher’s best efforts to jump-start my enthusiasm and pique my interest, I quickly became withdrawn and uncharacteristically passive. Funding for books mattered then, it matters now.
Predictably, the first parent-teacher conference that my mother attended did not go well. The teacher explained that my classroom participation was poor: I didn’t raise my hand enough, didn’t want to read out loud and didn’t participate in class discussions. After a few minutes hearing the teacher’s litany of concerns and seeing my mother’s worried face, I lost my composure and blurted, “How can I participate in the classroom with so many students raising their hands competing for attention while my hand is rarely, if at all, noticed?” It was my way of saying that I had become a face in the crowd and had simply given up. Class size mattered then. It matters now.
Somehow I survived freshman year. The summer went fast and I expected to start my “sophomore slump” in September. It didn’t take long. Again I encountered crowded classrooms, a dearth of resources and the customary bland and sparse course offerings for a purportedly “academic” program. I found solace in continuing my active participation in music, the arts and sports; activities I had been involved in since elementary school. In spite of limited resources, they enjoyed full promotion and encouragement from teaching and administrative staff and enthusiastic support and participation by the student body. They were not merely “extracurricular” activities. They were part and parcel of the high school experience and part of the school’s curriculum. The arts mattered then. They matter now.
A few weeks into my sophomore year, students and parents learned that funding was made available to start the College Bound Program. Students of all different achievement levels would be selected to participate in a program that would offer a wide range of benefits and supports. These included small class sizes (no more than 15 students per classroom), enrichment (e.g., summer sessions, college/SAT prep courses, scholarships to attend classes at local universities, educational field trips), tutoring, advanced placement courses (e.g., science, English, mathematics, foreign languages), college advisors, overnight field trips to colleges, and robust parent involvement and parent/teacher forums.
One of the hallmarks of the College Bound Program was accountability at all levels: school administration, teaching staff, parents and, most importantly, students. Expectations were set high at all levels but not without the supportive systems and resources required to ensure success. Although it came to be known as “a school within a school” a distinguishing feature of the College Bound Program is that it was integrated into the life of the entire school. Students were not segregated from each other in the same building, prevented from walking down a hallway painted a different color, as happens in the campus school buildings where multiple small schools are co-located.
College Bound students were expected to participate in and contribute to all the school’s activities and events including: a broad choice of sports, the arts (e.g., theatre, music, modern dance and the graphic arts), special assemblies and other creative activities. The program had scholar athletes, thespian aspirants, dancers, musicians and artists that displayed their talents and skills together with other students. There was only one baseball, soccer, basketball, gymnastics or tennis team, one band, one lunchroom, one gymnasium. It was not a shared campus with students eating lunch from as early as 10:30 am to as late as 2pm. It was not a situation where a school down the hall had a class you couldn't take because your school had a different "theme". This is what is happening in “campus” buildings with multiple small schools.
Unlike the small school where my daughter now teaches, the school’s administrative and teaching staff operated under the direction of leaders of distinct departments. There was only one principal for one school, not 6 at a "campus". Each discipline had its own Department Head, many of whom were doctoral level administrators, serving all students. Teachers belonged to departments that provided structure, mentoring and consistency. They were not left to fend for themselves without guidance as happens at small schools that have departments no larger than 4. Benjamin Franklin High School staff made the principle of “leaving no one behind” part of their professional ethos. But unlike No Child Left Behind, purportedly intended to help “disadvantaged students”, they put the principle into practice by investing the financial, material and human resources to do it and providing the support systems to sustain it.
Besides to providing a broad range of enrichment opportunities and course choices for students seriously pursuing higher education, they also provided career-oriented programs. Students who did not choose to pursue a college education were taught living skills and marketable job skills or a trade that equipped them for life after high school. Career-oriented offerings included Industrial Arts, Home Economics, Home Nursing, and Secretarial Studies. In the “parallel universe” of misguided education reformers, all high school students will magically morph into lawyers and doctors, albeit no one in their right mind would discourage any student from aspiring to those professions. But the real world is not all doctors and lawyers. Designing curricula on the premise that all students make the same choices or have the same aspirations and talents is impractical and it is unconscionable to create a class of unskilled and unemployable students by not offering alternatives for developing practical life and work skills for students that make other choices. Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes have largely vanished from New York City schools. No amount of lip-service from any leader can justify this reality. Pointing to one program, at one school, in one borough is not acceptable. Even the “college and career ready” should be able to benefit from courses that teach practical skills and knowledge.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of the school’s administrative and teaching staff was its ethnic and cultural diversity, reflecting the diversity of its students. Although a majority of students was African-American and Latino, there were sizable numbers of Italian, Eastern European, Caribbean and other ethnic and cultural groups represented. Our school reflected the diversity of our neighborhoods. In fact, the school was located across the street from a sizable Italian community that thrived at that location for decades. Many of its children attended the school. All had one thing in common: poverty. These attributes contributed to an ethos that encouraged a more supportive and inclusive esprit de corps among staff and students alike. This is in contrast to the increase of young, inexperienced, white, recent college grads from outside of the five boroughs.
My daily routine while attending Benjamin Franklin included getting to school at 7 am to learn how to play chess from teacher volunteers, taking advanced courses in science and mathematics (e.g., calculus, physical chemistry on Saturdays at Columbia University), running to get to the lunchroom first to play chess with classmates, staying after school for gymnastics practice, going to Central Park with team members and the coach for tennis practice and competitions, participating in music, modern dance and theatrical productions. All my classes had a maximum of 15 students; my calculus class had only 4 students and was taught by a teacher that graduated from Princeton. My routine was not unlike that of most of my College Bound classmates. But the activities did not limit our interactions with the rest of the school’s students, as happens in "campus" buildings subdivided into "turf" of each mini school. They were also classmates. College Bound students were not segregated from the rest of the school. The College Bound Program was part of ONE SCHOOL.
Urban school settings present unique challenges. But the achievements of Benjamin Franklin High School are evidence of what is possible given the right incentives and motivations, the resources and staffing necessary for success.
It was Mr. Schlanger, the senior class Guidance Counselor that one evening brought an application to Harvard University just before I left for home after a gymnastics practice. I had already submitted all my college applications and was close to accepting a full scholarship to the State University of New York I had won or choosing another college to attend. He said, “I know it’s a little late, but I want you to apply. I’ll line up letters of recommendations for you.” Harvard was the last school I applied to. Although I was skeptical, I filled out the application that evening and turned it in to Mr. Schlanger the next day. The required two teacher recommendations were provided by Dr. Smith, Chairman of the Social Studies Department, a Jew, and Dr. Thomas, Chairwoman of the English Department, perhaps the only doctoral level female African-American Department Head at the time, certainly one of the few. Thanks to the efforts of these three, I was accepted to Harvard University’s Class of 1974.
The College Bound Program’s first graduating class (Class of 1970) included students that were accepted to and attended Yale, Dartmouth, Princeton as well as other well-known colleges and universities. Subsequent classes followed in its footsteps. The class of 1970 achieved one of the highest graduation rates in many years. It succeeded by assembling a committed, diverse and quality administrative and teaching staff, designing a curriculum that ensured course diversity, insisting on manageable class sizes, providing access to the arts, sports, promoting parent involvement, and creating a supportive environment that valued everyone’s contributions and work. All of these elements were essential to the program’s success. But for me the program’s greatest achievement was doing it all without balkanizing its "customers", students, and without undermining and debasing the high school experience, one of the most significant in the lives of adolescents.
One need only take a cursory look at the faces that crowd our current classrooms to see that the vogue in educational “reform” today has produced test drones, not critical thinkers and promoted segregation, not diversity. The elements required to improve public education are well-known. Scholars have written about it and they have been tested for decades. Experienced teachers have known and applied them for years. As the process owners, they should be the first to be consulted about reform and left unfettered by a bureaucracy that stifles creativity and the proscriptive demands of reformers that have never seen the inside of a classroom.